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Chicago a strong bet to finish, not to start

Handicapper Alex Smith is a Chicago native and big Blackhawks fan who will be back in his hometown today for defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago’s season opener against the Washington Capitals.

The Blackhawks will raise their championship banner to the rafters of the United Center in an emotionally charged pregame ceremony, and Smith recommends betting the Capitals as a plus-150 underdog.

“You’ve always got to look at fading the champion in the first game. You’ve got to look at the Capitals stealing the game,” said Smith of axsmithsports.com. “There will be a lot of excitement and energy with the banner raising. It will be an emotional event, and that could take the wind out of Chicago’s sails.”

Though Smith won’t be on the Blackhawks today, he likes them and the Boston Bruins to win their respective divisions and meet for a rematch in the Stanley Cup Finals.

“The Hawks look really good. They’re still young, they still skate hard, and they don’t seem like a team that will be complacent because they’ve won twice in the last four years,” he said. “I like them a lot. Looking at the new division alignments, they’re familiar with a lot of the teams, and the travel will be a lot easier for them.

“The only team that will give them trouble in that (Central) division may be Minnesota.”

Smith likes Boston to win the Atlantic Division and the Los Angeles Kings to win the Pacific. His sleeper pick is the Philadelphia Flyers, at 12-1 odds at the LVH, to win the newly named Metropolitan Division over the favored Pittsburgh Penguins (5-7) and New York Rangers (5-2).

“I do like the Philadelphia Flyers to make a comeback. That’s a good price to win the division. It’s a good long shot,” he said. “They looked bad last year, when everybody got hurt, but everybody’s healthy now and they’ve found their goalie in Ray Emery.

“If things line up for them, they’ll have a really good chance of winning that division.”

Smith also took the Flyers to exceed their season points total of 93.5, a number that has climbed to 95 at the LVH.

Smith’s best bet is on the Vancouver Canucks to finish under their season points total. He got it at 101, but it has been bet down from 102.5 to 99.5 at the LVH.

The Canucks and Rangers swapped coaches — with Alain Vigneault heading to New York this season and John Tortorella venturing to Vancouver — and Smith doesn’t like either move.

“I don’t think the Rangers will be as good as people expect, and I don’t like the fact they swapped coaches with Vancouver,” he said. “I wasn’t crazy about (Vigneault) in Vancouver, and I don’t think he’ll make a difference in New York. But I like that move better than Tortorella going to Vancouver. I don’t think that move is going to work out at all.

“The last thing (Canucks goalie Roberto) Luongo needs is a volatile coach like Tortorella. I can see that going really bad.”

Smith said Vancouver can easily miss the playoffs if it gets off to a slow start.

“They’ve been slowly declining since the last time they made the Cup finals in 2010-11,” he said. “The Sedin brothers (Henrik and Daniel) are getting older, and the grittiness and toughness has worn off on that club.”

As a general strategy, Smith says to avoid taking big favorites and recommends taking the Winnipeg Jets, a plus-130 underdog today against the Edmonton Oilers (-150).

LVH sports book director Jay Kornegay likes the Blackhawks and Kings to meet in the Western Conference finals and Pittsburgh Penguins and Bruins to meet in the East.

“I like the Kings because they’re really physical, especially in the playoffs,” he said. “Not too many things have changed. You still have the usual suspects in the divisions, with favorites Boston, Pittsburgh, Chicago and L.A.”

Kornegay said the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks also could contend in the West, and the Rangers and Ottawa Senators could contend in the East. The Oilers could be a sleeper.

“The Oilers are probably going to win the Stanley Cup within five years,” he said. “The Wild are probably one step away, and the Ducks are probably one step away.”

Aside from the Canucks, the biggest move in season point totals was on the Carolina Hurricanes, who were bet up from 79.5 to 82.5.

Contact reporter Todd Dewey at tdewey@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0354. Follow him on Twitter: @tdewey33.

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